Israeli journalists cry foul

JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (JTA) — Israel’s attorney general came under a hail of criticism this week over his handling of a probe into a controversial media leak. The leak dealt with a police investigation of a questionable loan Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s family received from a South Africa-based businessman. The news made international headlines and had the potential to change the outcome of Israel’s Jan. 28 elections. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein told a news conference Wednesday that the story was leaked to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz by a senior attorney from the Tel Aviv Prosecutor’s Office who had worked on the case. The prosecutor, Lior Glat-Berkovitz, admitted that she had leaked the document in order to help Sharon’s political opponents, Ha’aretz reported. Glat-Berkovitz has been suspended and officials are considering launching criminal proceedings against her, Rubinstein said. The leaked document pertained to a request police submitted to South African justice officials to help investigate a $1.5 million loan Sharon’s son Gilad received from a South Africa-based businessman and family friend, Cyril Kern. Gilad Sharon used the loan as collateral to help pay back an illegal campaign contribution that the state comptroller had ordered Ariel Sharon to return. The disclosure of the loan investigation came on the heels of vote-buying allegations in the Likud Party’s December primary, and temporarily shook public support for Sharon and his party. But a news conference Sharon called earlier this month, in which he denied wrongdoing and accused those who leaked the affair of wanting to “topple the prime minister,” helped reversed the trend. At Wednesday’s news conference, Rubinstein said the decision to investigate the media leak did not come easily, because he felt similar investigations in the past had proven futile. His decision in this case was based on the difficulties the leak caused to those investigating the Sharon loan, Rubinstein said, along with the “suspicion, which unfortunately came true,” that the source of the leak came from the government. During the news conference, journalists assailed Rubinstein over the fact that police summoned the reporter who broke the story, Baruch Kra, and questioned him under caution. Such questioning meant the reporter faces the possibility of prosecution. Before his story appeared in Ha’aretz, Kra was warned that its publication could obstruct the investigation of the loan, Rubinstein said. Kra denied receiving any such warning. During police questioning, Kra cited journalistic immunity and would not reveal the source of his information. The Israel Journalists Association said the questioning of the reporter violated freedom of the press. Attorney Boaz Guttman, a former commander of the police fraud squad, said the police claim that Kra’s actions obstructed the investigation sounded “like a joke and a trick.” “It wasn’t the obstruction that bothered the interrogators, but their demand that he name the sources,” Ha’aretz quoted Guttman as saying. “They tried to frighten him by waving a criminal record.” But Rubinstein defended the interrogation. “I am as big a fan of freedom of the press as anyone,” Rubinstein said. “But a judicial leak is a grave matter, and the investigation required we question Kra as well.”

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